Technically, the Bay Atlantic Symphony didn’t even exist when freshly-minted maestro Jed Gaylin arrived in Bridgeton with a baton, an ambitious plan and a contract to take the orchestra to the next level.
Gaylin wasn’t a complete novice. He was already the music director for Baltimore’s Hopkins Symphony Orchestra. He’d been hired by the board of the Bridgeton Symphony to work with its group of young-but-dedicated musicians whose collective goal was to expand the somewhat limited reach of classical music in southern New Jersey.
“When I got here, I immediately wanted to begin doing more young peoples’ concerts,” Gaylin recalls. Based in Cumberland County, the symphony played four programs a year — two at Bridgeton High School, the other two at Cumberland Community College. Sometimes, calendars permitting, they’d sneak in a fifth performance at Stockton University.
“I saw that our reach was much more regional than we realized, so we changed our name to Bay Atlantic Symphony.”
That was 20 years ago. Today, the orchestra is known far beyond its South Jersey home. It attracts musicians from throughout the Delaware Valley and even New York and plays 14 or more programs a year.
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“The quality of the (symphony) makes it such an honor to be at the helm with this incredible group of artists.”
And its reputation allows it to draw from some of the world’s top solo musicians as featured artists to enhance its programs, which can range from a string quartet playing an outdoor summer program in a barrier island beach community, to the full 65-member orchestra filling the stage of Borgata’s Music Box, one of Atlantic City’s marquee casino venues.
The growth of the symphony under Gaylin’s leadership hasn’t been lost on the Bay Atlantic’s board of trustees. They recently offered Gaylin — and he accepted — a five-year contract extension. By the time the deal is up in 2022, Gaylin will have spent 25 years at the helm of the Bay Atlantic.
“When I hear (25 years) I think that (it’s) not possible because I still feel like we’re just getting started,” Gaylin says. “We have so many exciting plans. We have a great repertoire, we have great artists that keep coming in, and we have great concerts throughout the year.”
Gaylin enjoys the challenge of developing repertoires for the different kinds of audiences they’ll attract in South Jersey. He enjoys introducing classical music to kids, and a dozen symphony members recently performed Vivalidi’s “The Four Seasons” at Dante Hall in Atlantic City for 220 grade school students.
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Gaylin feels “The Four Seasons” is the perfect piece for children who are just learning there’s more to music that Justin Bieber.
“Vivaldi has a special space in peoples’ consciousness, adults and kids, so you have all of these imagistic elements coming together,” he explains. “You’ve got rain and thunder and lightening and you’ve got a dog barking. You’ve got raindrops while you’re inside by the fireplace, that’s one of my favorite movements. And there’s (the sounds of) ice cracking, great bird calls, so we can point these things out to the kids. It’s such an imaginative piece of music that it’s fun to do for everyone.”
About 50 percent of the BAS repertoire is pieces Gaylin and many orchestra members have played in the past.
I aim for about 50 percent of new things for me. You discover a new piece and it’s like a whole universe for you to unlock. It keeps you young at heart and young musically, and the orchestra loves it too. They appreciate playing the chestnuts — the ones that they’re always revisiting — but then you do something that’s a little off the beaten track and they thank me for programming those pieces.”
Although they’ve performed in some important South Jersey venues, Gaylin admits it was very important for the Bay Atlantic Symphony to form an alliance with a casino. In addition to having first-class performance venues, they can also invite some of their well-heeled customers from outside the region who may not be familiar with the Bay Atlantic.
In 2008, the symphony played its first show in Borgata’s Music Box, and the 1,000-seat theater has become its Atlantic City home ever since. The Landis Theater in Vineland has become its artistic home and the Bay Atlantic’s corporate offices are now in Atlantic City.
Borgata is an important venue because it’s where the Bay Atlantic holds is annual fundraising gala.
“I don’t know of another casino in this country that has a classical music series, certainly not a classical orchestra series,” Gaylin says. “We have had great audiences, extraordinarily enthusiastic (audiences) at Borgata.”